Various friends have commented on Peter Jackson’s film and asked me questions about it, but I have only now managed to see the full version. I liked it very much. It was filmed in January 1969. I was then the label manager for the Beatles’ Zapple label and, unfortunately, I was in New York recording poetry when the rooftop concert took place, so I missed it. Nor did I attend any of the Get Back sessions, though seeing the footage brought back clear memories of watching the Beatles record as I’d been to dozens of the sessions for Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album. Only true Beatles fans will want to see the endless takes on each song, but that is what recording sessions are like, and the documentary gives a very good sense of the waiting around, the slow pace, the interruptions, and the occasional flash of brilliance when a song finally comes together.
Just to show off, here are a few pictures of my-then-wife Sue and I at a Sgt Pepper recording session at Abbey Road, in 1967, about 18 months before Get Back was filmed.
It was great to see The Beatles’ staff again, in their youth, laughing and joking as I remember them. In particular, it was great to see Mal Evans, their roadie in action. I always liked him and got on with him and was saddened when I heard he was killed by L.A. cops. A friend called the police when Mal, spaced out on Valium, threatened to kill himself with an air rifle that his friend could not get away from him. But when the police arrived, he pointed the air rifle at them and they shot and killed him. I looked up what Paul had to say about him in the interviews I did with him for my book Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now. Paul:
Mal was our roadie. He came in very useful on Yellow Submarine to turn various devices and the alarm clock on ‘Day In the Life’. He was always in the studio so if we needed an extra hand. I remember we had one thing that required a sustained organ note so I said to Mal, ‘Look, that’s the note. I’ll put a little marker on it. When I go ‘There’ hit it.’ Which he did. And I said ‘When I shake my head’ take your finger off. So for that kind of a part, he was very helpful. He played the anvil on ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ and he was on gravel bucket. At one point he had a bucket full of gravel and we asked him to shovel it as a rhythmic device. As you can you imagine, we had a little bit of a giggle doing those kinds of tracks.
Though ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ was rehearsed for Get Back, it wasn’t recorded until August for the Abbey Road album. The four sessions devoted to it were the most acrimonious that the Beatles ever did with the other three Beatles hating the song. I enjoyed seeing the rehearsals because it includes one of pop music’s few references to ‘pataphysics, the French literary movement started in honour of the playwright Alfred Jarry. I was made a member of the College in 1965 and was the one who first introduced Paul to his work. As Paul told me in one of our interviews:
To me the interesting thing was the ‘pataphysical reference, which as I know and you know, comes from Alfred Jarry and the Ubu plays and that was a nice little in joke that not many people got unless it was pointed out to them. So that was a nice little thing for people who knew. Only one or two people got it over the years. […]
I am the only person who ever put the name of ‘pataphysics into the record charts. C’mon. No, it was great, a lovely idea. As I say I love that surreal, Magrittian little touch in all the respectability. How Magritte lived, or the ‘pataphysical apparent respectability. Just with the little surreal cuts, that’s nice because it reminds us of where we are, sort of thing, you know. It’s not the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, it’s something else.
Given that The Beatles were the biggest band on Earth, it is interesting to be reminded how casual their security and protection was and how small their staff. They only had a chief roadie and his assistant. Derek Taylor was their Press Officer, famous in his own right though he only appears briefly in the film, They travelled with no assistants, roadies or bodyguards, though they did have drivers. Paul was the one who insisted on retaining a ‘normal’ life:
I remember showing up to the ‘Let It Be’ rehearsals – took the tube in myself and just walked the rest of the way. You’d often get grabbed by a gang of girls who’d just sort of find you, and run towards you, but I just used to say, ‘Right, right, right. What d’you want? Autographs? handshakes, conversations? What is it? You won’t get anything if you push. No come on…’ Line ‘em all up like an elder brother, you know, ‘Come on.’ And they’d get quite pally actually. They’d say ‘I really want an autograph’ so I say, ‘I’ll do ‘em as we walk. Now let’s be sensible’, and they’d ask, ‘Tell about your new record, Paul,’ and all that. I never wanted to become a prisoner of my own fate, or my own fame, or whatever it is. It always seemed to me the ultimate tragedy that. And I’d seen it.
The amazing thing is that this was filmed over 50 years ago, but it looks as if it was done last week, thanks to Peter Jackson’s superb restoration. The Beatles are all in their twenties, they are young men and yet were old-hands at the job of making music with a decade of performing behind them. Their adroitness with their instruments and understanding of musical structure is wonderful to see; they are consummate professionals. They were wearing warm winter clothing but still looked fashionable for the time. Another thing, as my friend Raymond Foye remarked, they all smoked all the time. He also enjoyed their clothes.
I enjoyed seeing their song writing ability at work: hearing a version of a song before one or two key words had been added. Paul said:
‘Get Back’ was something we made up out at Twickenham, basically. I had a rough idea of a few little things, and I was jamming them out. It was basically my song, and we worked on some lyrics. Jo Jo was a fictional character. Many people have since claimed to be the Jo Jo and they’re not, let me put that straight!
I also enjoyed watching them establish the lyrics to ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ Paul:
‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ was mine and it has an inclusion in the middle. Rather like I have an inclusion in the middle of ‘Day In The Life’, John has an inclusion in the middle of ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ which was quite separate, written separately. They’re both the same tempo and they both matched so we were able to link ‘em up. The first bit of the song is mine, then John’s is ‘Everybody had a…’ John liked it, we must have liked it to include it.
Another song I enjoyed watching them record was ‘The Long and Winding Road’, one of Paul’s songs. It was written with Ray Charles in mind and in some ways reflects the tensions in the group. Paul:
A pretty sad song, really, in that respect. It’s all about the unattainable, in my mind, the door you never quite reach. If life is what happens on the way to doing other things, then this is the road that you never get to the end of. It’s that, it’s in keeping with that. The wild and windy night, the rain, left a pool of tears.
For me it was a nostalgic look back at the Sixties. Because it was the Beatles it was hard to get away from the myth, but there were enough street scenes and interviews with the general public to fix it in time: London in 1969, just as many of the sixties ideals were beginning to sour, and some of the better sixties ideas: racial equality, the women’s movement, were beginning to flower.